‘who is a Jew’ and Conversion Law Amendments Defeated by the Knesset

The Knesset on Tuesday firmly rejected two Orthodox-proposed measures governing conversions to Judaism.

It voted 60-53 against the so-called “Who Is a Jew” amendment to the Law of Return, which would have recognized as Jews only coverts converted by Orthodox rabbis. The sponsors were the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael and Poale Aguda parties.

The Knesset also defeated by a 60-51 margin an emendation or “correction” to the Law of Return that would have required anyone seeking to convert from one faith to another to obtain the consent of the head of the conversion faith. For converts to Judaism in Israel that would be the Chief Rabbinate, even if they were converted abroad.

It was a relatively new measure devised by lawyers for the ultra-Orthodox Shas party as an alternative to the “Who Is Jew” amendment, which has failed to win approval the many times it has been before the Knesset.

Likud has always supported the religious bloc on the amendment, but has not invoked party discipline.

A Knesset defeat became apparent when members of Likud’s Liberal Party wing, such as Sarah Doron, and one ex-Likudnik, independent Yigael Hurwitz, voted their conscience against the measures.

Similarly, right-wing hard-liner Rafael Eitan, formerly of the Tehiya Party, cast a negative vote.

The more moderate religious factions backed off, apparently sensing inevitable defeat. Yosef Burg, veteran leader of the National Religious Party, was abroad and did not return for the vote, as he might have done in past years.

Also absent was Likud-Liberal Moshe Nissim, the finance minister, who thought the furor over the amendment was disproportionate to the number of people it would affect if adopted.

TWO ALTERNATIVE BILLS DEFEATED

The Labor Party and others of the center and left opposed the measure, as they have in the past.

But bills introduced by two small secular parties, Mapam and the Citizens Rights Movement, were decisively defeated. They offered more liberal definitions of a Jew than even the unamended Law of Return.

The outcome of the Knesset vote Tuesday was further testimony to the influence and determination of the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism to prevent the “Who Is a Jew” amendment from becoming law in Israel.

The Law of Return defines a Jew as anyone born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism. The Orthodox amendment would only recognize conversions performed “according to halacha” (religious law).

Opponents have argued that this would delegitimize Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel, the movements with which the vast majority of diaspora Jews are affiliated.

Both the Reform and Conservative movements in the United Jewish Appeal, the Council of Jewish Federations and Hadassah, mounted a campaign to defeat the measure as soon as it appeared again on the Knesset agenda.

They argued that passage would polarize the Jewish people and create a schism between Israel and diaspora Jewry.

Appearing to bow to this pressure, Premier Yitzhak Shamir urged the Agudat Yisrael and Poale Aguda parties Monday to postpone reintroducing the “Who Is a Jew” amendment. But the Orthodox groups apparently failed to heed his call and were ultimately defeated.

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